Eight Questions With… Marcus Chown

Welcome to Eight Questions With… Marcus Chown, these questions (and answers) can also be found on the last page of the December edition of Teen Librarian Monthly, and now for the first time on the website itself. This is for those readers who do not subscribe* but are interested in finding out more about our scientist in residence.

Q1 Which of your books would you recommend for teens and young readers

For teens, any of my popular science books. When I was a teenager I used to read popular science books by people like Arthur C. Clarke and Carl Sagan. I write at their kind of level – in fact, I write for my wife, Karen, who has no science background. So, if I was a teenager today, I might be a reader of my books, if that makes any sense!
My most accessible books are Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You and The Magic Furnace. In fact, several school science teachers have said they’ve given Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You to their teenage pupils.
Did you know that there’s so much empty space in matter that, if you could squeeze it all out, the entire human race would fit in the volume of a sugar cube? Did you know that a single atom can be in two places at once – the equivalent you being in London and New York at the same time? Did you know that you age faster on the top floor of a building than on the ground floor? All these things are in Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You, which is about Einstein’s theory of relativity too. All in less than 200 pages. Without an equation. And, hopefully, it won’t hurt you (at least, not much!).
The Magic Furnace is the book of mine I like best. It’s about the discovery that we are far more intimately connected to the cosmos than even the astrologers guessed. Want to see a piece of a star? Just hold up your hand. You are stardust made flesh. The iron in your blood, the calcium in your bones, the oxygen that fills your lungs every time you take a breath, all of these atoms were forged inside the furnaces of stars which lived and died before the Sun and Earth were born. The story of how we discovered this is the story of The Magic Furnace.
So much for teens, what about young readers? Well, there’s Felicity Frobisher and the Three-Headed Aldebaran Dust Devil (www.felicityfrobisher.com). It’s the book I had the most fun writing. Felicity Frobisher is quiet and polite and never gets into any trouble whatsoever. Until the day she is visited by Flummff, a young Three-Headed Aldebaran Dust Devil (he comes down a “wormhole” from a dusty planet around the red giant star Aldebaran).
Flummff is very, very bad. He gets poor Felicity into all sorts of trouble at school. She gets chased out of a park by a fist-waving park keeper and accused of cheating in the school cross-country run. But, despite having the worst day of her life, she also gets to beat the school bully, and go down a wormhole to Hawaii, the International Space Station and Flummff’s horribly dusty, horribly gritty home planet. The Scotsman newspaper called the book: “A thrilling, silly escapade among the stars.” And that’s about it. It was my chance to be really, really silly, which I don’t ever get with my popular science books.

Q2 Do you ever read the works of other science writers? If yes who can you recommend?

When I was a teenager I used to read Arthur C. Clarke and Carl Sagan. But I would recommend anything by Simon Singh, because he’s a good writer (and because he’s my friend!). So Big Bang or Fermat’s Last Theorem. Richard Feynman was an eccentric, bongo-playing Nobel-prizewinning physicist but he popularised too. His best book is QED: The strange theory of light and matter, which is about what he got his Nobel Prize for. That’s small and without equations but demanding. But the books about his adventures such as Surely, You’re Joking, Mr Feynman? And What Do You Care About What Other People Think? are great fun. (I was incredibly lucky to be taught by Feynman)

Q3 How did you become known as the Katie Price of Science Writing and who first gave you the nickname?

I have to admit I gave it to myself! I heard that Katie Price never gets any prizes but that one of her books outsold all 100 (I think) books on the Booker Prize long-list combined. I too never get short-listed for any book prizes or anything like that but readers seem to like my books because they buy a lot of them. So I thought: I’ve got something in common with Katie Price. So that’s why I called myself the Katie Price of Science Writing on my website (www.marcuschown.com). It’s tongue-in-cheek, really. Just a bit of fun!

Q4 What is the most satisfying part of the writing process for you?

When the money arrives! No, I’m joking!

Actually, the best part is when your book comes out and you keep going in bookshops to see if it’s arrived yet. I am very sad. I tend to get my wife, Karen, to photograph me holding up the first book in a shop! But it’s great. The thrill never wears off. When I was at school, I liked English and writing stories. My absolute dream was to write a book and see it published and go into a bookshop and see it on a shelf. And, when it happens, it’s just as wonderful and amazing as I imagined it would be.

Q5 I have recently acquired a copy of Felicity Frobisher & the Three-headed Aldebaran Dust Devil (an amazing title and even better story) – do you have any plans for a sequel or perhaps even writing similar books for older readers?

I am so glad you like my title – and the story! I really enjoyed writing it. I had never written children’s fiction before and I had no idea whether children would like it. But I was overwhelmed by the response when I went into schools. And children keep asking when they can read more about Felicity Frobisher. I think children identify with Felicity because she isn’t like the normal heroes of children’s books. She isn’t any good at school, isn’t athletic, and she wears big glasses. Her mum and dad never notice anything about her. And she’s being bullied by the school bully! And, if things could not get any worse, she is befriended by Flummff, an alien boy who is very, very bad. But, although he gets her into tons of trouble, he definitely gives her the adventure of her life. Definitely, the sort of thing most children would like to brighten up a dull, boring day at school

The good news about a sequel is that I am writing Felicity Frobisher and the Newly Wedded Capellan Toast Weevil and also have a third book fully plotted. The bad news is that my publisher does not want to publish any more. So I will have to find another publisher. But don’t worry. I will. I’m persistent!
As for writing similar books for adults, my wife is 50 and she loves Felicity Frobisher. So I think the book can be enjoyed by both children and adults.

Q6 Are there any novels that you have enjoyed that you would recommend for Teen readers?

I really liked Elizabeth Knox’s teen novels The Rainbow Opera and The Dream Quake. She’s one of my favourite novelists. I also really like Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses about a world where black and white people have switched roles. I also liked her sequels, Knife Edge, and Checkmate. I liked Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines, about cities that trundle across the planet, fighting and gobbling each other up. And, of course, I love The Lord of the Rings, which I first read when I was 18.

Q7 What can you tell us about Kelvin (that won’t ruin the end of the book)?

It’s about what every day things that tell us about the Universe. It’s as simple as that. Every chapter starts with a familiar everyday observation – like the sky is dark at night or teacups break when you drop them – and leads on to the, often amazing, thing this tells us about the Universe. For instance, the reflection of your face in a window tells you about the most shocking discovery in the history of science – that the Universe is based on chance, the roll of a “quantum” dice, that ultimately things happen for no reason at all. The fact that iron is common – in the metal of cars, even in the blood coursing through your veins – is telling you that out in space there must be a blisteringly hot furnace at a temperature of at least 5 billion degrees. I finish the book with one everyday observation for which we don’t yet know what the thing it is telling us is. If you see what I mean! The observation is that there are no aliens on Earth – not lurking on street corners, not floating angelically overhead or beaming up and down like characters from Star Trek. It could be that we are the first intelligence to arise in our Galaxy. Or it could be it’s so dangerous out there in space that any race that ventures out from its home planet gets wiped out. Or it could be anything else. In fact, this is case where your guess is as good as mine. Or the guess of the best scientists!

Q8 Do you ever visit School or Public Library Reading Groups or science classes? If yes, what is the best way to get into contact with you or your agent about it?

In the past, I have been to state schools. I have also given talks at events like the Cheltenham Literature Festival and the Edinburgh Science Festival. What I can do depends on what else I am doing at the time. But the best way to contact me is through my publisher, Faber & Faber.

Thank you! I’ve really enjoyed answering these questions!

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